Lee Geum-yi has published more than fifty books in her native South Korea, many of which have been adapted to film and stage, as well as into a number of languages. But it’s only now that one has been translated into English. That book is The Picture Bride, a story set mainly in a Korean enclave on Hawai’i in the 1910s. Lee’s stories often involve little-told pieces of history and The Picture Bride is no exception.
One of Korea’s most renowned 20th century authors, Pak Kyongni often wrote stories set in the aftermath of the war and during the several military dictatorships. Pak passed away in 2008, but her work has been revived in English with a recent collection in translation, The Age of Doubt. These seven stories are all set in the 1950s and ’60s, a far cry from the glitz and glamor of modern-day Seoul. Each of the seven stories, furthermore, is translated by a different translator. While the stories differ, and not just in translator, a similar sense of darkness pervades all of them.
“To satisfy Divine Justice, perfect victims were necessary, but the Law of Love has succeeded to the law of fear, and Love has chosen me as a holocaust, me, a weak and imperfect creature” wrote Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in her 1982 debut novel Dictee. Only two months after its publication, Cha was raped and murdered on her way to meet her husband and friends for dinner in New York City. She was 31 years old. Cha’s novel is haunting, tragic, and defiant. Written in multiple languages and in a style both enigmatic and experimental, its accessibility is comparable to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Dictee is widely recognized today as a critically important text of postmodern, postcolonial, Asian-American literature and has enthralled scholars of Asian American literature since its publication. Forty years later, University of California Press has produced a restored version of Dictee. With the original cover and high-quality interior layout as Cha had designed them, this book is the most aesthetically appealing edition of the five that have been produced.
On the morning of his 43rd birthday, celebrated artist Lee Hanjo wakes up hungover and alone. His loving devoted wife is gone, only leaving behind the draft of a novel. To Hanjo’s horror, the book tells the story of an artist in his early 40s and his affair with a possibly underage girl. This manuscript will ruin him, but his mind is drawn back to a summer years before when the death of another girl changed his life.
Had it been set in an English-speaking country, Seo Su-Jin’s story about Korean language teachers in her home country of South Korea might be considered an addition to the campus novel genre. But in Korean Teachers, Seo’s debut novel translated into English by Elizabeth Buehler, education is portrayed as a service industry—with customer satisfaction as the main objective.
If there’s a country that “punches above its weight”, it’s South Korea. It’s home to some of the world’s largest and most important companies, and the source of pop culture that dominates Asia—and even planted a foothold in the West.
Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife is ostensibly a violent slasher novel about an aging assassin, known in the novel as a “Disease Controller” trying to end her storied career on her own terms. But wrapped in this visceral package, the book dives into the reality of an aging woman in a society apathetic to her plight, and indeed to her in general.